Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 13 - The Biggest Ship since the Ark

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First river trips - Great Eastern in 1857 and 1886 - Echoes in Muscat - At Bombay - Breaking up - Gruesome discovery - Performances as steamer - Voyage to New York - Man going to be hanged taken to see her - Trip to the Chesapeake - Visited by President and slaves - Unlucky career - Before her time.

MY first river journey was undertaken about 1855 or 1856, when I went from London Bridge Steam Packet Wharf to Gravesend in a diamond-funnel steamer, the name of which I cannot recollect. I remember feeling concerned at the piles of luggage accumulated on the pier, and enquired whether the boat would not be likely to sink if it were all put on board; still my mind is a blank about the voyage generally. But I recall hearing at Gravesend of a fire that had happened shortly before in which a lady in her night-gown, fleeing downstairs, perceived that the house walls had become so incandescent and transparent from the great heat that she could plainly see the crowd in the street, the engines working, and the people next door scrambling to remove their furniture. They had reason to in face of such a transcendental phenomenon! I believed this story at the time as it tallied with something I had heard about the stupendous effects of heat.
    After a few trips above bridge, during one of which I very distinctly recollect leaving Hungerford Pier for Chelsea in a Citizen and passing, exactly under Hungerford Bridge, the Waterman Company's boat Swift, the name - which I thought at the time indicated a very fast steamer - being in great yellow letters on a green paddle-box, I again travelled to Gravesend in the diamond-funnel steamer Nymph, not the one already mentioned as plying to Wool-[-117-]wich, but an older and bigger boat that was sold towards the end of the 1850s.
greateastern.gif (50828 bytes)  I was taken on board by my father, who asked a matronly lady seated near the wheel with a group of children of assorted sexes and sizes if she would mind keeping an eye on me during the voyage. She readily assented, and as soon as the Nymph was under way, told me to sit by her side. But I could not accept such a passive role on such an auspicious occasion, and saying, "Excuse me, please, but I want to look at the engines" (on a Clyde steamer in later years that would have meant, "I'm going for a drink "), I left her to the company of her family and of the steersman to whom no man might speak. But she was amiable, and off Erith beckoned me to share the contents of a basket well provisioned for the voyage.
    This was late in 1857, and the trip was memorable because we passed, at Millwall, Scott Russell's giant steamship Great Eastern, afterwards renamed Leviathan and then, when her continued run of ill-luck induced fears that Providence was angry at the use of a biblical term in a more or less boastful sense, Great Eastern again. She stood on the stocks un-launched and, it was feared at one time, unlaunchable. Her five funnels and six masts were not yet in position, but her whole hull was out of the water and seemed tremendous. The 60-feet paddle-wheels were fixed and painted red: huge as they were they yet appeared insignificant against the vast dark sides. I did not see her again until, in 1886, she was moored at the Tail of the Bank, Greenock, as a show-ship in her decrepitude, when I inspected her two engine-rooms and quaint square boilers (then worked at only 10 lb. per square inch pressure): dined in her grand saloon, and finally attended a Music Hall Variety Entertainment given in one of the gigantic cable tanks.
    Previous to her visit to Greenock she had been at anchor in Milford Haven for many years, so long that in the meantime her engines had become antiquated to such a degree that no engineer could be found who could discover how to start them. Ultimately an old man who had once acted as an engineer on board was hunted up, and he travelled [-118-] from a distant part of the kingdom and, turning back the pages of his life some twenty-five years, assumed charge of the screw engines and successfully took the great ship round to the Clyde.
    With the exception of a small Admiralty experimental vessel, she was the only steamer ever built driven by both paddle-wheels and screw, and the only large vessel that could turn in her own length as on a pivot, like a Thames tug or a modern twin-screw ship. After the belated launch, she was anchored off Deptford just above the Dreadnought hospital ship, to be completed, where, on Whit Monday and Tuesday, 1859, she was visited by enormous crowds, which overwhelmed the down-river steamers and Greenwich Railway. Even the Blackwall Railway contrived to share the harvest by carrying the surplus and sending them up the river from Blackwall Pier. Subsequently the great ship was towed down-stream by a fleet of tugs. I remember that the Illustrated London News had a two-page engraving of the event, showing the tide-way so crowded with craft that one wondered how even tiny whitebait could contrive to find room to swim about in it.
    The Great Eastern was 692 feet long, 82 feet wide (120 feet over the paddle-boxes), 22,000 tons measurement, and 12,000 horse-power. When one considers that the next largest ship afloat was about 5,200 tons the sensation she created may be appreciated. Biblical students stated that she calculated out slightly larger than Noah's Ark. In the matter of horse-power, however, that ancient hooker was at an immense disadvantage; we know that she took only two equines on board, so that 2 horse-power (indicated) must be the limit of her rating.
    This nearest rival of 5,200 tons was the recently built U.S. screw corvette Niagara, which was 375 feet long. The second next largest, also from the United States, was the fine paddle-ship Adriatic belonging to the Coffins Line, that unfortunate early competitor of the Cunard. She was 5,900 tons "American measurement" - which made her the largest ship afloat, Niagara not excepted-but her dimensions, 355 feet long, 50 feet beam and 33 feet depth [-119-] of hold, show that she was only fractionally larger than the Cunard Persia, which was 390 feet long, 45 feet beam and 32 feet depth of hold, and was rated at 3,600 tons. The Persia, which was the third largest vessel afloat when the Great Eastern left the stocks, had been launched on the Clyde in 1855 in the presence of 50,000 spectators, some of whom had witnessed the launch of the primitive Comet in 1812. Her paddle-wheels were 40 feet in diameter, steam pressure 20 lb. to the square inch, and speed 16 knots or 19 statute miles per hour. It is noteworthy that the Adriatic was fitted with oscillating engines on the English Penn model to qualify her to compete with the Persia.
A knowledge of the Great Eastern's measurements proved useful to me some twelve years later, in 1870, when being seated with a friend in a coffee-house at Muscat we were tackled by Arabs and Wahabees (the town was then in possession of Sultan Azim-ben-Ghez of that sect, and it was death for a native to be seen smoking a cigar) on various subjects. One of them suddenly asked about the Great Eastern, of which vague rumours were current in that part of the world. I expressed her size in terms of the British India Steam Navigation Company's mail-boats (which ran to about 1,200 tons register) which then came into Muscat twice a fortnight, and with which they were well acquainted, adding the wheeze about Noah's Ark. As Mohammedans, to whom the Old Testament is holy writ, they of course knew something of that craft-for ever classed Al in a higher register than Lloyds! - and a chorus of "Ai-i-wallah, wallah!" indicative of deep wonderment, went round.
    The Great Eastern came out to Bombay round the Cape while I was in the East, to lay the Red Sea cable in pursuance of what had proved her special mission. She was painted white for climatic reasons and was reported to look very handsome and majestic.
    When broken up at Birkenhead in the 1890s her Low-moor iron plates were found in excellent condition and made the fortune of her lucky purchaser. She had a double skin, being, in fact, almost two ships, one inside the other - a [-120-] mode of construction which gave immense strength (and once saved her from total loss when she got on the rocks near New York) but deprived her of the flexibility needed for the comfortable negotiation of heavy seas. Had it not been for this undesirable stiffness I have reason to know that she would have been re-engined in modern style instead of broken up and might have been afloat to-day. The point was much debated in Glasgow prior to her condemnation.
    In the course of demolition, deep down between the double skins, it is said that a human skeleton was found. It was then remembered that while on the stocks building a pay-clerk had disappeared with a large sum of money. At the time he was supposed to have fled with it, but this discovery put a different and more sinister aspect on the affair. Murdered by workmen and dropped between the partially completed skins? In any case the Great Eastern had carried a human skeleton about in her secret cupboard for the whole of her career-sufficient, in sailors' estimation, amply to account for her almost unvarying bad luck, which had commenced with the drowning of Captain Harm- son, her first commander, and a fatal explosion on her first trip.
    How did the performances of the great argosy compare with those of the Mauretania and Aquitania of to-day? On her initial voyage to New York, leaving Southampton June 17th, 1860, she ran the 3,242 nautical miles in ten and a half days, an average of 309 knots per day, the best run being 340 knots. But for half speed due to fog for a good many hours the record would have been better. The coal burnt was about 250 tons daily; the maximum speed 14? knots; revolutions of the paddles 12?, and of the screw 36? per minute, with a steam pressure of 21 lb. to the square inch. The coal used by the Persia, the crack Cunarder of the time, was 180 tons per day for a rather less mileage which, regarded from the carrying capacity point of view, was a comparison very much in favour of the Great Eastern. Reaching New York on June 28th, she had a great popular reception, hundreds of steamers and yachts escorting her [-121-] from Sandy Hook, while the forts and warships fired salutes and the people crowded the roofs and church towers. One day, while lying in the Hudson above the city, there was a man to be hanged on Staten Island and the vessel conveying him steamed up the river to give him, his executioner and her crew a look at the great ship, which, having seen, they went about their business in the opposite direction.
    After having taken 1,500 excursionists a trip to the river Delawar, the Great Eastern went, on August 2nd, to Point Comfort on the Chesapeake, where thousands visited her, including a number of slaves brought by their owners for a day's outing. What a row there would have been with Uncle Sam had they refused to leave the protection of the British Flag, under which no slave may live! But nobody seems to have thought of it. At Annapolis Roads crowds came from Baltimore and the President lunched on board. On the 16th departure was made for Halifax, where they were very glad to see her and charged ?350 for light dues, and thence for England. On a trip in 1861 she brought 7,000 tons of cargo from New York and in 1862 sailed with 1,530 passengers. But such gleams of good fortune did not suffice and the big ship had to be laid up through the inability of the shareholders to finance her further. She was a great engineering achievement, but before her time.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924